As the Beatles once put it, "Happiness is a warm gun, Mama." Of course, John and Paul and George and Ringo were being facetious when they wailed that little ditty a few years back, but in Savannah, Ga. last week a small army of super shotgunners gathered to prove the truth of the slogan. Along the way nearly 4,000 guns grew very warm indeed, more than half a million shots were fired, the sky grew dark with clouds of shattered clay and joy was wildly unbounded.
The cause for all this explosive jollity was the 27th annual World Championships of the National Skeet Shooting Association, a slambang gathering of 927 of the nation's best and most fervent wing shots—with contingents from Japan, Canada and Puerto Rico as well. By the time the smoke cleared (a full day later than the program called for), six major titles and countless minor ones had been determined in the four basic shotgun categories recognized by the NSSA—.410, 28, 20 and 12 gauge.
But a world-class skeet meet is much more than a mere blastoff for money and medals. Like golf, which it resembles in its emphasis on heavy concentration and light sociability, skeet shooting is a lifetime sport, accessible to young and old, male and female alike, provided they can afford it. And skeet is expensive. Of the 200,000 Americans who shoot skeet, almost 20,000 are registered with the NSSA and qualify as "serious shooters." For them the cost of guns, ammo, targets and the logistics of getting to the meets parses out at roughly a dollar per clay bird killed. And a whole mess of birds bit the dust in Georgia last week.
The sport got its start back in 1920, on the grounds of the Glen Rock Kennels in Andover, Mass., when a group of upland bird hunters began looking for a better way to keep their eyes sharp during the off-season. Trapshooting seemed too simple—a couple of clay pigeons whizzing off in easy, straightaway shots—so the gunners laid out a circular course that measured 25 yards in radius, marked off like the face of a clock. A trap at "12 o'clock" was set to fling clays over each of the 12 stations, plus a short station in the center of the circle. "Shooting around the clock," they called it. But when a chicken farmer set up his stand at the edge of the clock course, the gunners had a problem. They solved it by cutting the circle in half and putting another trap at "six o'clock." That reduced the danger area by half but retained the difficulties of wing shooting from the original layout.
August 12, 1973
As the sport grew in popularity, all that was needed was a name. That want was filled in 1926, when a certain Gertrude Hurlbutt of Dayton, Mont, won a $100 prize in the sport's baptismal contest by suggesting "skeet"—an old Scandinavian form of "shoot." From that point, the sport went off with a bang. Except for the war years, world championships have been held annually since 1935 in places as disparate as Reno, St. Janvier, Quebec, Rush, N.Y. and San Antonio.
The Savannah meet was the fourth to be held at that venerable Southern seaport in the past nine years. To many, the weather—scalding and sticky, punctuated from time to time by torrential rains and lightning—seemed more conducive to sipping juleps and swinging in hammocks than trudging around the Forest City Gun Club's 26 skeet fields. One evening the organizers of the meet served up a traditional Georgia "shrimp boil," and while the 1,400 pounds of crustacea were bubbling, one gunner opined: "It might take a little longer, but they could have saved themselves the boiling water just by letting the shrimp stand out in the air for a while." But despite the heat, the shooting was superb.
In fact, it was so superb that nearly every major event went into overtime with dozens of shooters tied with perfect scores. The cannonade of competition blammed steadily away from dawn to unconsciousness, interrupted only by the rains. The silences during those breaks seemed eerie, underscored as they were with the occasional whistling of bobwhite quail from the surrounding piney woods. An aura of intense introspection dominated the scene. Skeet demands the utmost in concentration, since in this era of faultless guns and super-reliable ammo the levels of excellence are incredibly high, and a single miss—or lost bird, as the euphemism has it—can spell defeat. "If you miss by six inches," the saying goes, "it's usually the six inches between your ears."
Shooters respond to this pressure with fascinating psychological ploys. Some stand around catatonically between shots, staring at the great invisible clay bird out beyond the horizon. Others sing to themselves (a favorite on most fields last week was Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head) or else chatter away at their teammates like so many holler-guy shortstops. "Be tough now," they yelp. "Be ready when you call. Give us a purty little swing now, that's it, you smoked him, now do the same for his little brother. Wood to wood there, wood to wood. All raaaaht!" To smoke a bird is to hit it smack on with a full pattern of No. 9 chilled shot, thus causing the black and yellow clay to explode like a small flak burst. The second bird of a double is usually referred to as the first bird's little brother, a rather bloodthirsty allusion to the sport's roots in live game shooting. The slogan wood to wood is pure wing-shooting humor or something: straight shooting requires that the comb of the shotgun's stock be firmly planted against the gunner's cheekbone. (Actually, the abrasions from the recoil of wood on skin during a long shoot can be very painful; many gunners smear their shooting-side cheek with talcum powder, a cosmetic technique that makes them look like half-painted Indians ready for the warpath.)
Though skeet shooters are generally more gentlemanly than their trapshooting cousins, who compete for bigger purses and thus feel they cannot afford to be friendly to the competition, there is still a lot of psyching involved in the sport. Gunners who have shot perfect scores often show up at the field where their main competitor is shooting and just stand around giving him the evil eye. These types are known as hawkers, perhaps because of their baleful stare. The internal psych is also important. "I used to have a very mild-mannered call," says Joyce Luce, a 27-year-old housewife from Hebron, Conn. who won the women's 20-gauge title at Savannah last week. "When I mumbled 'pull' for the bird to be released from the trap, the referee would snarl at me to speak louder. Now I have a loud call, and in a way it concentrates me, makes me tougher." Though Joyce's call is hardly a war whoop, many of them are. The simple word "pull" in many throats becomes a growl, a grunt, a savage bellow.
Before she came down to Savannah, Joyce was already psyching herself for the meet. "I'd never seen the course," she recalls, "but I would dream about it, and in my dreams it was built on a swamp—the Okefenokee, I guess. There were snakes all over the place, and even an alligator. In my dream I would break three straight—75 birds—and then jump on my bike and pedal back home to Connecticut between rounds to tell my father. On the way back I'd fall in the swamp, with all those snakes, and miss the final round." In reality, Joyce had the finest week of her 14-year skeet shooting career, capturing her first world title and breaking 300 straight birds before she faltered. Then, in the women's 12-gauge final, she lost two birds in one round and was out of it.
No such hangups bothered Karla Roberts, a 36-year-old schoolteacher from St. Louis whose aplomb was equal to her girth. A huge, happy woman off the field, Karla was the personification of poised concentration when her gun came to her burly shoulder. In winning the women's .410, 28-gauge and 12-gauge events, she powdered a total of 545 birds in 550 shots to set a world record for women, beating the mark of 542 set eight years ago by Evelyn Jones of Dallas. "My husband and I took up skeet seven years ago to improve our hunting for rabbits and doves," Karla said, "and we got addicted. It's an expensive sport, and if I didn't teach we couldn't afford it. But it has its compensations. I'm a member of a five-lady pick-up team that shoots each year against the U.S. Marine Corps team. We have our own little side bet that the losing team will buy champagne for the winner, and they had to buy for us the last two years." At Savannah last week, the leathernecks finally won, but Karla and her ladies didn't mind popping for the bubbly. After all, the Corps deserved to win something after Vietnam.
Among the men, the hottest shot during the opening fusillade of the week was Kenny Barnes of Bakersfield, Calif. A lean, long-haired tire dealer who also works as a licensed goose guide during the waterfowl season, Barnes won the Champion of Champions title in a shoot-off against five other gunners. All six broke 100 straight birds to reach the final, 25 each in the four gauges. Then Kenny had to kill 111 more before his rivals missed. "Most of the older gunners are game hunters as well," says Barnes, who at 34 is a bit long in the tooth for a skeet champ. "I got into skeet through hunting. Right now I have one of the most complete sets of mounted waterfowl in the U.S.—all of the geese and all but three of the North American ducks. I'm missing two Alaskan eiders and, would you believe it, a scoter, that dark feller with the orange knob on his bill. We just don't have 'em out West. I reckon that with practice and competition in skeet, I burn about 10,000 rounds of ammo a year. In a really hot waterfowl season I might burn a case—500 rounds. So you can see that skeet will sure make a better game shot out of you, if practice makes perfect."
Unfortunately for Barnes' later fortunes, the reverse did not hold true. After his win in the four-gun Champion of Champions match, he began losing birds, a few at a time but enough to drop him out of contention for the big prize: men's overall champion. That title would go to the man who missed the fewest times over 550 shots in .410, 28, 20 and 12 gauge. On what was supposed to be the final day of the shoot, with 500 shells burned, the leaders were John Durbin of St. Louis and Maxie Wright of Savannah, with two misses each, followed by Gary Lowe, an Indiana sharpshooter, and Paul Laporte from Montreal, who were three down. During the final 50 both Durbin and Wright lost a bird apiece—Maxie's on a disputed call that went against him only after the NSSA grievance committee convened for an hour to argue the Byzantine intricacies of clay fowl ups and downs. Wright, a former helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam and was discharged from the Army only a year ago with a bad back, waited around nervously until the decision was reached. When the decision went against him, precipitating a four-man shoot-off for the overall championship, his fine edge was gone. "Well," he philosophized before the shoot-off, "that's skeet. One little bit of clay out of all that tension, and there you are, caught up in a tie."
Came the morning of the high overall shoot-off and it was evident that one gunner at least was fully primed. Paul Laporte, the 45-year-old Montreal restaurateur (he owns a chicken joint named the Laurier Bar-B-Q, had managed only an hour of sleep the night before. "I killed birds all night long, maybe 10,000 of them," he said. A courtly Quebecois with a slight Gallic paunch and dressed all in black like an aging gunfighter at the O.K. Corral, Peerless Paul had lost birds—three of them—only in the first two rounds of overall, two with the .410 and one with the 28. "Then I vowed I would not miss again," he said. And he didn't. Killing his remaining birds with the bigger-bored 20- and 12-gauge guns, he came into the shoot-off with plenty of momentum and even more cool. Within 16 birds it was over. Lowe was the first to miss with the .410, with which the gunners began the overtime since it was the first gun in the original repertoire, losing his third bird out of the trap. Then Wright, the former chopper hopper, missed on his seventh clay. Durbin, scrawny and stooped but a master of concentration, lasted to 16 birds and then blew a shot at the low house from the No. 6 post. The overall title belonged to the French-Canadian—his fourth come-from-behind victory of the season, following similar wins at the Lordship meet in Connecticut, in Puerto Rico and the Bluegrass in Louisville. "Rather like Arnold Palmer, don't you think?" he asked after the victory. It reinforced the golf analogy, but actually in his black turtleneck, black slacks, black shoes and cap Laporte came on, visually, more like Gary Player. His costume (he has come to be known as the Black Chicken Hawk on the skeet tour) makes him feel mean, a major requisite for killing, even if only of artificial birds.
But the heat generated by his black clothing finally proved Paul's downfall in the last event, the "big gun" 12-gauge men's championship. On the ninth round of the shoot-off, which began with 25 gunners tied and had now reduced itself to a scant five survivors, Laporte missed an incoming bird from the low house at post No. 8. Up to that point he had killed 223 birds straight in overtime, a remarkable performance considering his age and the heat. He was shooting through a sky full of humidity and dragonflies, which had emerged that morning after the previous day's winds died down. "I saw that my gun was a little to the left of the bird and I tried to compensate," he said later, "but my finger was faster than my mind, and pow! I missed. Well, the overall was the big one for me, anyway. I am quite satisfied with four major high-overall victories in a single season, all of them retrieved from a position behind that of the leader."
By the time the 12-gauge championship was decided, so were the onlookers. It was nearly "bull bat time"—that enchanted evening hour when the night-flying birds come out, and old-line Savannahans reach for the bourbon bottle—when the last shot was fired. Walt Badorek of Klamath Falls, Ore. finally missed on the 21st round of overtime and victory went to Bobby Lewis, 32, a farm equipment manufacturer from Baxley, Ga. Lewis, a member of the host Forest City Gun Club, had killed 762 birds straight to win the title—250 in the basic competition and 512 in overtime. That was a new record of its own for the most shots fired in a World Championship shoot-off. For Lewis the victory was doubly gratifying. Some time ago he totaled a foot in a motorcycle accident and for five years shot from crutches. He still wears a brace on the damaged leg.
So for Lewis, Laporte and Barnes, Joyce Luce and Karla Roberts, and so many other excellent markspersons, the long, ear-banging ordeal was finally over. Skeet shooting may not be much of a spectator sport—indeed it is even more painful for the watcher than the shooter, despite the lack of recoil—but it is certainly a worthy endeavor for anyone who cares for concentration. Now that it was over, though, happiness was a warm shower, a cold beer, and a mind free from the presence of phantom, flying clay birds, all of them spinning off unhit. The warm-gun fun would come again—and again.